Rabbi hunts for disruptions in symbolic Jewish boundary

By Todd C. Frankel
Of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch

The rabbi removed his wide-brimmed black hat. He slipped on a white hard hat. He grabbed his binoculars and jumped out of the old green van.

"This is where I got my surprise last week," said Rabbi Chona Muser as he stood before a busy MetroLink construction site and the pink stone campus of Washington University in St. Louis.

Muser was hunting for the subtle signs that an important Orthodox Jewish boundary was intact, just as he has done every Thursday for the past decade. The symbolic 15-mile boundary, called an eruv, is made from a largely overlooked world of fences, utility poles, cable wires, power lines and plastic rope.

Last week during his inspection, he spotted a serious problem with the boundary at the same spot where he stood now. And for the first time since it was created in 1994, the boundary was down on the Sabbath, disrupting life for Orthodox Jews in many ways. The eruv creates an area in which Orthodox Jews are allowed to perform tasks as basic as pushing a stroller that are otherwise banned outside on the Sabbath, a day intended for rest.

Early Thursday morning under an overcast sky, Muser faced a new Sabbath and a new question: Had the eruv been fixed in time?

Muser wore old pants and waterproof shoes for the inspection. Soon he would be climbing through people's back yards, slipping down runoff ditches and running up muddy hills for his job. It can be dangerous. He once fell and grabbed a beehive to catch himself, getting stung several times. He also carried a green toolbox in his van with the tools he might need: binoculars, tape measure, U-nails, hammer and plastic tubing. Just before 8 a.m., he set out from University City.

Muser is responsible for the eastern half of the eruv. Another rabbi had already cleared the western portion for the Sabbath, which runs from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday.

Without an eruv, transporting objects on the Sabbath is not allowed for Orthodox Jews, who follow a strict interpretation of the Torah. No pushing or carrying. No keys in pockets. Rabbi Hyim Shafner said the eruv's absence last week meant he carried a copy of his remarks and his prayer shawl to temple before the Sabbath began.

The eruv transforms a private space out of a public one. "It is like a walled city," said Stuart Zimbalist, who helped create the eruv a decade ago. It makes it easier for mothers and young children to attend Saturday services and for families with young children to visit on the Sabbath. Most U.S. cities today contain at least one. In addition to the eruv covering parts of University City and three other St. Louis suburbs - and home to more than 1,000 Orthodox Jews - Chesterfield has a small one.

"Not being able to carry something from inside to outside is a very unusual thing," Muser said as he drove. "It's a concept which is hard for people to understand."

Muser pulled over next to a railroad crossing. He leaned forward in his seat and pointed to the high-voltage power lines passing overhead. The wires crossed over top of the tall steel supports - a perfect "T" essential for an eruv. This was the northern boundary. Muser and volunteers hunt for formations that resemble doorways, like this one, with the wire serving as a lintel over the posts.

"If they were all like this, making an eruv would be no problem," Muser said.

But utility poles, a common feature of city streets, tend to have wires attached at the side. So the eruv designers - who must be endlessly imaginative - focused on the thick black cable television wires that run about 16 feet off the ground. With the power company's blessing, gray plastic tubing was nailed to utility poles to form a doorway post. The remaining gaps were filled with plastic string.

Muser estimated he encounters a problem every fourth inspection, usually with the plastic string. But it was always easy to remedy. Until last Thursday.

Muser drove down Mehlville Alley toward the spot. Backyard fences here formed part of the eastern border until the alley meets the MetroLink work site. The boundary then jumps from fence to fence to plastic wire to cable wire, which carried on for 200 to 300 yards. It was stable for years. And then Muser discovered the cable wire was gone. It had been moved underground between inspections.

"This was a big problem," he recalled.

They tried finding other ways to route the boundary. Nothing worked. Last Friday afternoon, with just hours to spare, word spread through the religious schools and phone calls: The eruv was down. This Sabbath would be different.

A fix was hammered out earlier this week, but Muser's approval still was needed.

With his hard hat, Muser walked through the construction site. He rubbed his hands together as he looked for the eruv. The cable wire had been replaced by plastic rope hung from utility poles by a power lineman. Muser withheld judgment. He needed to see more.

He got back in the van and drove down the road. He tried to pick out the thin, clear plastic rope against the gray sky. "I think when it's sunny it's easier to see," he said.

As he drove, Muser said he believed what happened last Sabbath was a good thing, despite the disruption. Some Orthodox communities, he said, take down the eruv for one day each year to remind people of its presence. "It can't be taken for granted," he said.

Muser neared the end of the area that caused so much trouble. The rest of the eruv would prove to be in good condition. If this area passed the test, the eruv would be back for this Sabbath. The boundary would be restored.

"Last pole," he said finally. "Very good."